Recent research revealed that little black girls in the US are treated differently to their white counterparts from the age of five. It's easy to look at America's issues with race and think that the UK is different - but is that accurate? To find out, writer Kemi Alemoru investigates what it's like to be a black girl in a British school today.
Given that the majority of teen angst often stems from trying to fit in with your school peers, no child should be made to feel different by the teachers trusted with the important task of preparing them for adult life. While most pupils have a negative view of their teachers - with or without reason - a new study has shown that the sentiment is very much a two way street.
Academics at Georgetown Law have found that adults from various backgrounds treat little black girls differently to their white peers from as young as five years old. In what has been dubbed as the “adultification” of black girls, adults admitted that they saw black girls as older than white girls of the same age. As such they feel that they need less nurturing, support and protection. They also reinforce the“strong independent black woman” stereotype by seeing them as more independent than their white peers.
Strangely, they even thought black girls were more knowledgeable about adult topics including sex.
It begs the question, why are black girls being forced to grow up before they’re ready?
Experts are saying this helps explain why black girls in America are disciplined more often and more severely than white girls across US schools and in the juvenile justice system. But before we point the finger at America’s treatment of children, we must examine our own troubling truths. Black children are three times more likely to be permanently excluded from UK schools. Their performance is often lower than white children in compulsory schooling and they are more likely to be recorded as having special educational needs than other demographics.
Having had a few run-ins with teachers who projected their bad experiences with other black children onto me, I wondered if other black girls felt the same of their own school days.
Ese Hope Oraka-Onojeje, 17, Year 12, South London
“Where I grew up I believe black girls are not noticed as much by teachers so we have to go the extra mile to get our foot through the academic door. From a young age my mum always told me ‘for every piece of work you or a white person does you must work three or four times harder just to achieve the same result’. Consequently, I have felt a sense of independence because at the end of the day we can only count on ourselves to do our best.
“To some teachers all black pupils are indistinguishable. Our names spontaneously change three or four times until they get it right. I never see my white friends have their names mistaken. This may seem trivial but it’s these small things that tell you about how a teacher really sees you. If I have learnt anything in school, it is that actions speak louder than words. Teachers rarely make blatantly inappropriate remarks but instead a harsher tone or comments that pass under their breath is enough.
“One explicit anecdote comes to mind where my Geography teacher told me the whole of Africa is poor and that black people cannot swim. These are two ignorant stereotypes that came from someone who is supposed to be an expert in academics. I was shocked. It was emphasized when other black girls and white peers in my class looked over at me with the same look of surprise and disgust.
“But, ignorance comes from other teens too, black girls in South London are seen as rowdy, loud and ghetto hence why when girls of other races converse with me they may adopt these traits to be more like me or someone else. However, when they hear a black girl who doesn’t adopt these traits are seen as ‘white’ or the like an ‘oreo’ (black on the exterior but white on the interior).”
Jade Francis, 15, Year 10, Manchester
“I go to quite a mixed grammar school, however I am one of around six black/mixed girls in my year. I only have white teachers but there are a few people working in other aspects of the school for example dinner ladies.
“There hasn’t really been an incident where a teacher has treated me differently to my white peers because I don't often get in trouble in school – if i do it's for homework, being late or talking in class. I have noticed that in class sometimes a teacher will think it was the black student making the most noise or is the loudest one which they can hear if a group are talking. Obviously that is not always the case. But it’s difficult to challenge a teacher who is acting inappropriately or disproportionately towards a black student as I feel that they can get very defensive.”
Bria Bullard, 15, Year 10, London
“Black girls face a lot of hurdles in life before they get to the career they want to get to. We have to grow up and mature faster in order to get to where we want to be, in order to make it known that black girls can do what any other person could do – and could do it better sometimes.
“Generally in my high school I don’t feel too different from my white peers; but I remember a time in primary school, there was a teacher that taught us on a Wednesday and she would always make the black students sit on the floor and shout at us, whilst my white peers were allowed to do their work or have fun.”
Sascha Palmer, 15, Year 10, Birmingham
“In lessons I prefer to keep myself to myself when learning and just continue on my own I only ask for teacher’s help if I really need it.
“Personally I believe I have witnessed racism but not that blatantly. For example one of my black friends was told that her hair was against school regulations because the bottom was red. She was told to remove it and put in isolation for the rest of the week, however since then I have seen plenty of white girls go round with blue, pink, red hair with no consequences.
“One time I wasn't wearing my blazer because it was about 28 degrees, a teacher told me I had to put it on, then a white girl walked past without hers on and they did not say a word. My white friends are very aware to the subtle racism in school and they often discuss and complain with me and my coloured friends about it.”
Kyra Daini, 18, Year 12, London
“It may be very easy to assume that prejudice doesn’t exist in London but 100% does especially in a school environment. My mother is White Irish and my father is from Nigerian, teachers unintentionally make assumptions about a student, maybe as a result of having students from the same race previously. They carry this predetermined opinion into class rooms and continue the vicious cycle of difference and hierarchy.
“I never felt as though I had to identify with one single race until I started sixth form where I found myself being known as ‘one of the black girls’ which I had no issue with but did not see the necessity. I had to speak on behalf of all black people in some lessons especially whilst studying Philosophy and Ethics which seems ridiculous to assume that an 18 year old knows the opinions of every black person but it was an expectation that made me realise that subconsciously the teachers at the school believed all black people to be not even the same but very like-minded.
“Racism is such a sensitive thing in schools, to accuse a teacher of being inappropriate towards black students is treated as a crime in itself, the situation is manipulated to put the student in the wrong, making the accusation not worth it.”
From just these five accounts it’s clear to see that even if behaviour can’t be categorised as explicitly racist, there are at least subtleties present that show a difference in how black girls are treated in schools against their white peers.
More needs to be done for children and teenagers to feel not only supported by members of staff hired to do exactly that, but also for children to feel comfortable enough to hold their teachers to account in these instances.
All interviews have been edited and condensed